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Words to the Wise

Creative Nonfiction? Isn't That an Oxymoron?

In the first edition of Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, co-author Brenda Miller imagines being cornered at a party and asked the deceptively simple question, "So, you're a writer. What do you write?" All the possible replies flash through her head: Essays—but that sounds too much like academic papers and articles. Nonfiction—but her inquirer might think celebrity biographies, cookbooks, or historical treatises on World War II. Autobiography, memoir—but isn't she too young to write her memoirs? She knows that if she answers with the correct phrase, creative nonfiction, she will be in for a long night. She longs to tell her confused companion that she loves writing creative nonfiction precisely because of the ambiguity of this apparent oxymoron, ambiguity that allows her "to straddle a kind of 'borderland' where I can discover new aspects of myself and the world, forge surprising metaphors, and create artistic order out of life's chaos." Instead, she directs her friend's attention to the punch bowl and thereby to the myriad things of this world and thinks "maybe that is the correct answer after all."

The book's title is from a line of poetry by Emily Dickinson, which Miller and co-author Suzanne Paola interpret to mean that truth takes on many guises. The authors felt that the poem aptly described the task of the creative nonfiction writer: "to tell the truth, yes, but to become more than a mere transcriber of life's factual experiences." Every chapter opens with an artful example—just a few paragraphs—of the subject of the chapter: early memory, family, the physical world, spiritual autobiography, gathering history, writing the arts; and even the particular challenges of creative nonfiction and the basics of good writing. Just reading these examples is a revelation in itself: everything is interesting—or can be—even the exercise assigned to a group of novice nonfiction writers, to pull out a piece of their own prose and count the number of words in each sentence. "Ohmigod!" said one woman. "All of my sentences are eleven words long!"


Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction is now in its third edition, published in 2019.

Words to the Wise on creative nonfiction:

Creative Nonfiction? Isn't That an Oxymoron?

Creative Nonfiction: A Tricky Business

Creative Nonfiction Revisited

Taking the Risk—Writing About Those We Know

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